Physics: why it’s still a guy thing

Becky Francis

The movie Hidden Figures, which has just opened in the UK, tells the story of three African-American women who played key roles at NASA in the space race of the 1960s. Katherine Johnson devised the maths that made sure the first manned space flights would return safely to Earth. Mary Jackson had to petition a judge for permission to study engineeringat a segregated ‘whites only’ school and became NASA’s first black female engineer. These women broke racial and gender barriers.

This was half a century ago, but barriers persist. 

A great deal of effort has gone into encouraging girls into traditionally male subjects such as physics, engineering and mathematics. But the attitudes of men, women, boys and girls
themselves continue to stand in the way. Studies have shown that, even when equally qualified, girls are much less likely than boys to study ‘hard’ sciences to an advanced level and even less to become physicists and engineers. Our latest analysis, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, attempts to show why this problem remains so intractable. The data come from interviews with 132 15-16 year olds and their parents to ask their opinions on why fewer women pursue the physical sciences.

Some students and parents did not believe anything stood in girls’ way apart from lack of confidence. But nearly two-thirds of the young women and a third of the young men we spoke to believed that there were indeed impediments. These boiled down to a) continued gender discrimination and b) the notion that physics and engineering are quintessentially masculine in nature.

Some students saw the shortage of women in the physical sciences – both in reality and in the way scientists are represented in popular culture ­– as a self-perpetuating problem. It sends a message about what is appropriate for women and about what women are or aren’t good at.

A surprising number of interviewees talked about the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. One girl was definitely not amused: “It’s four physicists and they’re all men and people don’t really think of that as being sexist, but it is because the female character Penny is like the one that isn’t smart, because she’s a girl and she’s interested in girl things…”

And another girl deconstructed the set-up further: “… the two girls who are scientists – they’re both biologists. And then all the guys are physics. So like there is kind of this underlying sort of thing where you’re a bit like ‘mm, why is physics not a girl thing?’ Cos Amy Farrar Fowler could easily be a physicist… like Leonard could probably be a biologist, but they’ve just made it so that all the guys are physicists or engineers… so I guess there is a kind of … gender roles sort of deal going on.”

The lack of women becomes further evidence to support the ‘naturalness’ of men’s domination of the field. “I guess in the past women generally didn’t do that much science,” said one female student. “Obviously there are exceptions, but it’s very much like a lot of discoveries have been made by men and I think that’s just carried on and I think also boys generally tend to have a slightly more kind of ‘mathsy’, ‘physicsy’ brain…”

Many students saw physics as a masculine subject and therefore off-putting or inaccessible to girls. The numerical domination by men, as well as the discouraging messages this conveys to women, was an extremely strong theme in our data.

In fact, we identified five different lines of argument in response to our question as to whether anything deters women from physics and engineering careers:

  1. Certain subjects are gender-stereotyped as being masculine or feminine
  2. Men and women are naturally different and drawn to different subjects
  3. Femininity is antithetical to manual work
  4. Femininity is superficial
  5. Cleverness is masculine and physics is a difficult subject.

“I see it as more of a like guy thing,” said a girl. “I don’t know why… When I hear Physics I think of like the three nerdy… boys in my year, but they’re really good at it… so I don’t really think of girls like because they’re all into beauty and that in my school.”

Respondents also spoke of the pressure to conform to gender stereotyped expectations; otherwise they could find themselves “the only girl”, “odd”, “weird” or “uncomfortable”.

There is also pressure for young women to act “girly”. As one girl put it: “some young women in my year they act stupid. Like I don’t think they are stupid, but I think they act it… probably because they’re sitting near young men”.

Our findings show how this way of thinking continues to permeate the talk of young people and parents, subtly precluding the legitimacy of women’s presence in the physical sciences.

In order to confront the continued inequality in women’s access to physical sciences we have got to challenge these entrenched ways of thinking and knock them off course. Hidden Figures is one of the few films to feature women who love maths and engineering, and excel in these traditionally ‘masculine’ fields. Let us hope it will become one of many.

The data we analysed were generated by the ESRC-funded Young People’s Science and Career Aspirations Age 14-19 (ASPIRES 2) project, which has been based at Kings College London. ASPIRES 2 is the second phase of a ten-year longitudinal research project studying young people’s science and career aspirations. For details of the first phase, please see the ASPIRES report. The project’s director, Professor Louise Archer, will be joining the IOE as Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education on 1 March.

Photo: The Big Bang Theory Cast – Wallpaper “Bazinga” by Mystic Soul via Creative Commons  

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “Physics: why it’s still a guy thing
  1. Great blog. I am the father of a son and daughter and the lens of being a parent illuminates you to many of the implicit gender stereotypes that are simply so perverse that they are pretty much invisible. The analogy of ‘Hidden Figures’ is a telling one.

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